True Worship is Revealed By God
Yesterday’s post considered the way Exodus 32 warns us of false worship. It confronts the many ways we (unintentionally) bring ‘golden calves’ into our worship services, and it makes us ask whether or not the elements in our worship are biblically-grounded or not. Today, we aim to make a positive argument for true worship based on the ‘Regulative Principle.’
Moving from Old Covenant to New Covenant, we should notice that God is just as interested in true worship in the church-age. The difference is the location of that worship–in the Spirit-filled temple of the gathered church, not Solomon’s temple made of stones. On this John 4 is helpful.
In John 4, Jesus pursues a conversation with a sexually-dysfunctional Samaritan woman. This is a great passage on the subject of missions, evangelism, and salvation unto all peoples. But it also speaks volumes about worship. Tucked in this context, we see that God is still seeking worshipers who will worship Him in Spirit and Truth (v. 24).
To which we may ask: How do we worship in truth? Exodus 32 has shown us what false worship looks like, but where do we find true worship. Put simply, I would say that the whole counsel of Scripture is required to worship aright.
Now, this question has been debated much in church history. There are some who will say, that the church is permitted to do most anything in God’s name, so long as it does not violate the teaching of Scripture. This has been called the “Normative Principle.”
Conversely, others have argued for the “Regulative Principle,” which asserts that the church should do no more than what is commanded and/or explicitly modeled in Scripture. This second approach has, in some cases, been taken to the extreme. Some have argued that instruments, for instance, find no place in the New Testament and thus should be removed from worship. Others, more moderately, have made adjustments such as allowing for amplification and powerpoint in their services, even though Scripture says nothing of these things (although a raised platform and assistance in understanding the text in Nehemiah 8 may give support for amplification and powerpoint–just saying).
The perpetual challenges of contextualization make this debate very challenging. Nevertheless, based on the seriousness which God takes worship (cf Exod 32), it is a conversation worth having. My point, from the text in Exodus 32, is simply that we ought to have a principle of regulation, that arises from the text in all that we do. Creative freedom in worship seems to be what Exodus 32 is against, and it actually proves that such “freedom” results in the ultimate slavery (death). By contrast, when churches submit themselves to Scripture, they experience the freedom of the Lord, who descends upon the gathered church, and as 2 Corinthians says, where the Lord is there is a Spirit of freedom.
A Baptist Argument for the Regulative Principle
On the subject of the Regulative Principle, I have not found much that is immediately helpful–if you know of something, please let me know–but in a Baptist Press article from 2003, Donald Whitney, now professor at Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY), and author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, gives a number of helpful points. Let me quote a portion of his article, Worship Should Be God-Centered and Biblical
The regulative principle of worship in essence says that God knows how He wants to be worshiped better than we do, . . . ”He has not left us in the dark about that and has revealed in Scripture [alone] how he wants us to worship Him, what the elements of worship are to be. If He has done so, then those are the things we must do and we should not bring any of our own ideas in addition to that.”
Biblical elements of corporate worship include preaching and teaching the Word of God, prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The regulative principle rules out extra-biblical elements such as drama, clowns and the like.
Whitney pointed out that many Baptists today practice what is known as the “normative principle” of worship. The normative principle says that corporate worship must include all biblical elements, but believers also are free to include things not forbidden by Scripture. This approach is dangerous because God’s will is known only through His special revelation, . . .
We don’t know what honors God except that which He has revealed, . . . In areas like worship where He has revealed His truth, we may not go beyond the bounds of that.
[Significantly, Whitney ends his article by pointing us to the Scriptures, quoting from even from Exodus 25-30, which serves as the true pattern that was broken in Exodus 32].
In the end, Scripture must be our guardian and our guide! God has not left himself silent on matters of worship. He does not want creative expressions borrowed from the world. He wants his creation to worship him according to his Word. He is not looking for new ways to know him, explain him, promote him, or seek him. He has given us his word and his Spirit. This is sufficient.
To those who interpret the world through lens acquired from the world, this seems foolish and weak. But indeed, it is the wisdom of God. May we again press into know the Lord, and trust that we will not be dissatisfied.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss